By Tim Chitwood
COLUMBUS, Ga. — Boosting pay and pensions, increasing benefits for childcare and college tuition, and adding more cops to a force well short of the 488 already budgeted were some recommendations in Columbus Police Chief Freddie Blackmon’s plan for a department suffering low morale and personnel shortages amid recent gun violence.
Responding to city councilors’ demands that he implement recommendations from a privately funded study of the police department, Blackmon presented his plan Tuesday during a packed council meeting.
Among his proposals, and the time frame for implementation:
— Boost officers’ annual supplemental pay from $5,121 to $10,121, April 2023.
— Add $5,121 in annual supplemental pay for 911 workers, July 2023.
— Immediately re-instate a $1,500 quarterly salary supplement for officers and 911 workers, retroactive to January of this year. That was discontinued after the city adopted a new pay plan last year.
— Add 911 workers to the public safety pension plan.
— Change officer retirement so retirees get 60% of annual salary after 20 years’ service, 70% after 25 years, and 80% after 30 years, with no minimum retirement age, July 2023.
— Add a $150 monthly stipend for 58 officers who live in Alabama and don’t get to take their police cars home, July 2023.
— Offer officers full college tuition reimbursement, July 2023.
— Offer full child-care benefits at no cost to employees, July 2023.
— Offer a sign-on bonus of $8,000 for sworn officers hired laterally from other Georgia agencies.
— Add 84 officer positions to the budgeted 488 to bring the total to 572.
— Reorganize the investigative bureau to combine robbery-assault and homicide units, which was effective March 4.
— Transfer the gang analysis position from the Office of Professional Standards, or internal affairs, to the investigative bureau, February 2023-February 2026.
— Develop a radio dispatch system to allow communications with other agencies, to be completed by March 2023. The department currently communicates via radio only with sheriff’s deputies.
— Develop a written, comprehensive community policing plan, June 2023.
Blackmon, who gave a Power Point presentation to council, said the department’s complement of sworn police officers stood at 295, as of Tuesday.
He did not have an overall cost estimate for the proposals, some of which will have to incorporated into the department’s budget for the fiscal year 2024, which begins July 1.
Currently a rookie police officer with a high school diploma or its equivalent starts at an annual salary of $50,121, the department said.
Blackmon declined to comment to reporters after his presentation.
Blackmon’s plans were presented during a recent spate of gun violence: Columbus has had 14 homicides so far for 2023, and the city made national news Feb. 17 when a 5-year-old was among nine juveniles wounded at a Shell gas station here.
That was on a Friday night. The following Sunday, multiple shots were fired from a vehicle passing Lakebottom Park, where visitors using a walking trail had to duck.
The gunfire coincided with a crisis in police staffing, as officers leaving the force cite low morale as a major factor. Blackmon has been criticized by the local Fraternal Order of Police, and by the recent police study authored by the national consulting firm Jensen Hughes.
Columbus Council got a draft of the Jensen Hughes report in November, and after a public briefing Feb. 14 gave Blackmon until Tuesday to present a plan to address the issues.
Mayor cites first steps
Columbus Mayor Skip Henderson has said the city already is taking steps to combat the violence, and to retain veteran officers.
In an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer last week, he said maintaining sufficient police staffing is “our number one priority every day,” adding, “It’s something we continue to work on.”
The city recently adopted a new pay plan that boosts officers’ salaries, but sometimes increasing pay is not enough, as officers will accept less pay to work in smaller jurisdictions where the workload is lighter, he said.
As reflected in Blackmon’s proposal, the city plans to offer a stipend to officers who live in Alabama, and are not allowed the benefit of take-home cars, because of a liability risk, he said. Officers who live in Columbus often choose to park their police cars at home.
To target crime, the city is installing cameras around town, some with tag readers that alert police to stolen cars and wanted felons. The city is also adding more public lighting in areas susceptible to overnight crime, he said.
More cases of felons illegally possessing firearms are going to federal court, where mandatory sentences are imposed, instead of local Superior Courts, where the punishment’s lighter, he said.
He said he wants more cases handled that way, and has spoken with U.S. Attorney Peter Leary about adding another prosecutor here.
Investigators continue to compile information on local gangs, so members can be captured, often with the aid of federal agencies and the county sheriff’s office, he said.
Because of recent incidents in city parks, police have increased patrols, at times using officers willing to work an extra shift, so those on duty can stay on their beats, he added.
He said violent crime has increased not only in Columbus, but in other cities that face the same challenges. The police need the public’s help to keep crimes from occurring, by reporting suspicious activity as soon as possible, he said.
Blackmon is the city’s second Black police chief, after Willie Dozier ran the department from 2000 to 2004. During council’s Feb. 28 meeting, his supporters criticized the Jensen Hughes study and how the council, which is mostly white, has treated the police chief, alleging racism.
Blackmon’s supporters have complained that the Jensen Hughes study was funded by anonymous donors, and questioned whether it was intended to fault Blackmon’s leadership.
The nonprofit Community Foundation of the Chattahoochee Valley’s “Safe Streets Fund” paid for the study. The unnamed business leaders contributed approximately $190,000. City Attorney Clifton Fay said the government has no records naming the donors.
Henderson, who appointed Blackmon with council’s consent in November 2020, has said the city will use the Jensen Hughes report as a guide for the department, but it needs time to implement the recommendations.
Among Blackmon’s critics are District 8 Councilor Walker Garrett, who wants swift action on the gang violence he believes is threatening his district, which includes Lakebottom Park.
“Have no doubt: We are in a war,” he told Peach Little League parents during a March 2 league meeting at Lakebottom, where the teams practice and play. “We do not need an administrator. We need a general.”
Walker blamed the gunfire on street gangs. The Jensen Hughes report criticized police for having no strategy to combat gangs.
Among those at that Lakebottom Park meeting was Assistant Police Chief Debra Kennedy, who said the department regularly is recruiting new officers, but veterans who’ve been there 15 years or so are leaving for other agencies.
“We’re seeing them leave like we haven’t seen in the past,” she said.
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